Damn You, Ed Asner

My nemesis is dead.

For the past quarter century, every time the notorious Lou Grant actor appeared on film or television in my presence, I would shake my fist at the screen and yell, “Damn you, Ed Asner!”

Admittedly, he’s a weird choice of nemesis, but I have my reasons.

Back in 1997, I was coming back from an appearance at the San Diego comic con. Having hopped a train to Los Angeles, I was trying to get a flight to Montreal. To save a buck, I was flying standby. My Dad used to work for Air Canada, so I was able to fly on a free pass from time to time provided I was willing to go standby. Usually, that wasn’t a problem. There are always spare seats and last-minute cancellations on damn near every flight.

And I was eager to get home. After making the rounds at the convention all week, I felt like I was coming down with something. I only had to hold out for five or six hours more and I’d be in my own bed, sleeping it off.

I was waiting in the lounge for final word about that seat I was hankering for when He showed up.

For whatever reason, Ed Asner was on his way to Montreal. Given the state of exasperation coming from the booker, this was a very last-minute thing, but he had the cash to pay his way, and he was determined to get on that direct flight.

He got the last seat.


Hours later, they were able to book me a standby seat to Toronto. From there, I’d be able to grab another plane for the final hop to Montreal.

By then, there was no doubt. I was sick. Horribly, wretchedly sick.

It didn’t get any better on the plane, and dealing with the authoritarian shitbag customs agents at Pearson International only made things worse. By the time I rolled off the plane in Montreal, I was angry, exhausted, and deathly ill.

I blamed Ed Asner. For years.

It didn’t matter how many charming old-man roles he played, how many beloved Pixar cartoons he headlined, or how fondly he was remember for his signature curmudgeonly roles. He was a thorn in my side. One of us had to go. As it turns out, he went, finally, at the age of 91, today.

My nemesis is dead.

I win.

Strip Club Recessions

“Wanna go to a strip club?”

This is a question that will usually inspire a resounding “No!” from me. I’m not offended by strip clubs as a concept, nor morally outraged by the various branches of the sex industry. I remain academically interested in all things sleazy and perverse. But, as I’ve said here before, I don’t like my porn looking back at me. It’s creepy.

My past experiences with strip clubs have not been positive ones. Aside from the usual variety of ill-advised bachelor parties, and the one drunken crawl along the Montreal stripper strip that ended with a body count (the less said the better), there was the television shoot for Strip Club Confessions I was recruited for several years ago. I did that one as a favour for a friend (although the C-note helped grease my wheels) and thereafter swore off crossing the threshold of one of those dives ever again (bachelor party attendance out of sheer politeness aside, of course). They simply do nothing for me. Frankly, I’ve felt more blood flow to my cock swimming in a bone-chilling Canadian lake than I’ve ever felt in a strip club.

What was unusual about this particular “Wanna go to a strip club?” query was that I was the one asking the question. To my wife.

To understand why I would ever ask such a thing, you have to know the history of Picasso. Not the painter, the legendary 24-hour feed bag along Rue Saint-Jacques in the sleaziest stretch of the Montreal-West/N.D.G. area. For thirty years, if you wanted a good breakfast at 3:00 am, there was no better (or other) place to go than Picasso – a hybrid restaurant/diner/truck stop of a place within easy walking distance of any number of drug dealers, prostitutes and no-tell motels. St. Jacques was, once upon a time, the main artery into downtown Montreal from the west island. But then they built highway 20, and the artery turned into a varicose vein of dodgy economic blight. The legit businesses withered and died, the fast-food franchises got obscurer and greasier, and the motels started charging hourly rates as they shut their doors to family road-trip vacationers and opened them to solicitors of various rentable orifices.

Picasso had stood as a friendly oasis in this post-highway era from 1979 to 2009, but then abruptly closed overnight following a labour dispute with its staff. Attempts have been made to renovate and reopen, but they all fizzled out and the place has stood there rotting ever since.

At this point, Picasso looks like a post-apocalyptic prop. The elements, particularly Montreal’s harsh winters, have taken their toll, eating away at anything wooden. The windows and walls are covered in tags and graffiti, some of the windows are boarded up, the interior looks like it’s been frozen in time for centuries and covered in the expected amount of dust and debris, and the numerous plants and trees inside what was once a verdant greenhouse of a dining area have turned a pale brown and formed a petrified forest.

Picasso’s east-side entry.

Picasso’s east-side entry.

What used to be Picasso’s roadside sign, now communicating nothing.

What used to be Picasso’s roadside sign, now communicating nothing.

Graffiti, rotting wood, and stripped wiring.

Graffiti, rotting wood, and stripped wiring.

Some of the dead jungle inside.

Some of the dead jungle inside.

Abandoned interior with evidence of past non-starter attempts to renovate.

Abandoned interior with evidence of past non-starter attempts to renovate.

Lens flare as the sun sets on Picasso.

Lens flare as the sun sets on Picasso.

Graffiti on one boarded up window suggests one former employee’s take on the restaurant-ending labour dispute.

Graffiti on one boarded up window suggests a former employee’s take on the restaurant-ending labour dispute.

Graffiti on another board eulogises what someone once liked best about Picasso.

Graffiti on another board eulogizes what someone once liked best about Picasso.

Even a parting sentiment painted on the window fades under the constant assault of time and the elements.

Even a parting sentiment painted on the window fades under the constant assault of time and the elements.

Any other building in such a condition would have been a prime candidate for the wrecking ball. But Picasso persists. Not because there’s any hope for a revival, but because there’s a business in the basement. And you can’t destroy one without levelling the other.

Cabaret Les Amazones is the lone strip club on the street. Montreal has no shortage of strip clubs and has been a target destination for many a south-of-the-border youth looking for a titty-bar smorgasbord and a lower legal drinking age for decades. The fact that Amazones is the only business of its kind the area can support goes to show what an economic dead zone St. Jacques has become. Its weather-beaten and decayed sign towers at the side the road, beckoning commuters with promises of nudity and contact. The single uninviting entry point leads directly downstairs, into whatever debauched dungeon lies beneath the skeletal remains of Picasso.

East-bound traffic is solicited with this sad, sun-washed and weather-beaten sign.

East-bound traffic is solicited with this sad, sun-washed and weather-beaten sign.

West-bound traffic is apparently not even worth advertising to. The glass on this side of the sign has been shattered and missing for years.

West-bound traffic is apparently not even worth advertising to. The glass on this side of the sign has been shattered and missing for years.

Picasso’s boarded-up west-side entry and the door to the debauchery below.

Picasso’s boarded-up west-side entry and the door to the debauchery below.

I would wonder, sometimes to myself, often aloud, what sort of shithole must that place be to exist under the derelict remains of a decomposing restaurant in one of the ugliest corners of the city. I’ve long been curious to see, but reluctant to go. Not without a bodyguard.

“Wanna go to a strip club?” I asked my wife as we drove past one day. I don’t know how functional she’d be as a bodyguard, but she’d be certain to scare the shit out of any ne’er-do-wells if I made sure she was tired and hungry when we went. Tired plus hungry equals cranky, you see. You discover these sorts of things after years of marriage.

“No,” she answered, although she shared my curiosity. “But I have a writing assignment for you.”

The assignment was simple: Recruit two of my writer friends, arrange an expedition into the bowels of the Picasso/Amazones hybrid beast, and then, should we survive, each write something about the experience. This is me holding up my end of the bargain.

A posse was formed and, after the usual wrangling about an appropriate time and date, we piled into a car and headed out one evening, hoping for a truly vile, horrible night on the town that would fuel some future piece of writing.

We pulled into the nearly vacant parking lot after nightfall. It was still early as bar-hopping/clubbing goes, but the giant grid of empty paved spaces, shared with a neighbouring supermarket, seemed particularly barren after hours on a Saturday night. Stopping for a quick look through the dark windows of the Picasso ruins, we noted a light on in the kitchen that suggested it was still being used to serve up food to the club customers below.

We opened the door and descended to the basement. A sign on the wall dictated a dress code, more detailed and specific than your typical “No shirt, no shoes, no service” decree. Among the more interesting forbidden items of clothing were do-rags, because apparently the establishment was still having a lot of problems with time-travelling gangstas from the 1990s. This was borne out by our requirement to pass through a metal detector on our way inside after coughing up a cover charge. The metal detector was probably just for show and likely not even plugged in. We all noted we got inside without our pocket change and house keys provoking so much as a blip.

These reasonably ominous signs were promising, but then we sat down. It was with crushing disappointment that we realized we hadn’t entered a dive. The place was spacious and clean and glitzy and looked like the sort of higher end titty-bar you might see depicted on any random TV cop show. They even had a decent beer on tap for a reasonable price which, in my limited experience, is unheard of in the stripper-industrial-complex. This was all wrong.

Being early, we could have grabbed a stage-side table of our choice, but opted to sit back a distance. I may not like my porn looking back at me, but I really detest having my porn look back at me from only inches away. That takes a step beyond creepy and goes straight into spine-chilling territory.

The place was dead and the number of strippers taking to the stage sparse throughout our first pitcher of beer. But around 9:30, the place suddenly came alive and started filling up. The dancers and songs went into a steady cycle as the booth-bound announcer picked up the pace. An hour later, the club went from looking like another one of Montreal’s dead businesses that are used solely to launder mob drug money, to a thriving gold mine of vibrant economic viability.

Even the audience was animated, which is something I’ve never seen in a strip club before. Usually such places are full of guys quietly drinking, embarrassed to even be there, but compelled to stay until they’ve had an eye-full to their satisfaction. This place, however, had more of a party atmosphere, with the sorts of hoots and hollers you’d expect to hear in a strip club if your only experience with them is how they’re depicted in the aforementioned TV cop shows. The stage-side seats we had so cavalierly passed over were quickly topped up by “reserved” signs, and then promptly filled by groups (sometimes a mix of men AND women) who apparently needed to slip the doorman a fat tip in order to secure one.

Although there were large television screens placed strategically all over the club running sports, nobody was watching. It made for a very Canadian dilemma – naked girls and hockey competing for attention. Shockingly, the girls were winning out.

“The worse the economy, the hotter the girls.” So says the adage, if that is indeed an adage. I don’t know if there are all that many adages concerning stripping, but I’ve certainly heard this one before. It’s something to do with the fact that poverty allows this sort of skin market to be more choosy about who it serves up to the public. Certainly the ladies on offer landed firmly in the “attractive” category. Degree of hotness is something for the individual to decide.

Despite the sorry state of the economy, the ladies didn’t seem too motivated to solicit private dances, allowing the customers to come to them with money and requests. Tellingly, the one I considered least attractive of the crop was the only one actively working the room, going from table to table, trying to interest individual observers in her wares and a session of touchy-feely in a private booth. And she didn’t mind getting a tad grabby herself in order to scare up business.

“Get your fucking hand off my knee and go the fuck away,” were my only thoughts on the matter when it was our table’s turn to get the hard sell. I was too polite to articulate this in her presence. I knew she was just doing her job, grotesque as that job may be. But must we all make each other feel like a piece of meat in this transaction? I guess that’s the appeal for some. Me, I just wanted to return to my beer. My beer doesn’t objectify me. It just makes me fat. And we don’t judge each other.

“This is the best strip club I’ve ever been to in Montreal!” declared one of my accomplices.

I could see his point, though “best” is a relative term, and even the best of something I dislike still kinda sucks. It still wasn’t my thing, as confirmed when my focus briefly flittered back to the stage in time to see The Eye of Sauron yawning at me from between a pair of widely spread legs.

“Meanwhile, back at the gynecologist’s…” I commented, averting my gaze again.

By far the most interesting stage act, from my jaded point of view at least, was The Pole Sanitizer. This wasn’t a stripper, or even one of the girls. It was some poor schmuck whose job it was to mount the stage amidst sarcastic catcalls from the audience and spritz the stripper pool during a between-song interlude. He’d then wipe off the spray-bottle antiseptic with a rag, top to bottom, take his bows, and depart.

There was a brief intermission while we waited for the cleanser to evaporate from the stage before the next girl began her dance. It wasn’t long before she was grinding all over the pole, with only the flimsiest of thongs to protect the chrome plating from the assault of her nethers.

“That pole needs to be cleansed again,” I commented only minutes after it had been washed off, and hours away from when it would be wiped down again. Indeed, I spent much of the evening calculating how much fecal bacteria was being transferred to the pole by all these women wiping their ass crack all over it, one after the other and the other. The math was nauseating.

One custom of this particular strip club was something I’ll refer to as “the stage flop.” It’s sort of like stage diving, but in reverse. Apparently it was acceptable protocol for the clients to approach the stage during an act and, gripping a rolled-up twenty-dollar bill in their teeth, flop onto the stage. There they would lie, on their backs with the twenty standing erect, awaiting special attention from the stripper of the moment. Eventually, she would come over to retrieve her twenty-buck tip and reward the donor by battering his face with her boobs, or poising her groin over his nose at an olfactory distance I found unnerving even seated fifteen feet away.

Exactly what sort of close-encounter exhibitionist thrill you got for your twenty dollars seemed to vary depending on the girl. One of the strippers seemed to have made a reputation for herself by going the extra distance. When it was her turn on stage, she had two clients do the stage flop at once. I have to say, forty bucks for a three-minute dance is good money, but what she did to earn it would haunt my nightmares for weeks to come. She was, you see, a spitter.

Spitting disgusts me. The deep-routed psychological reasons for this will be explored in a future blog post, but suffice to say, “Ew!” Keep your expectorate to yourself, please.

The first stage-flopper received what I can only interpret as a contemptuous wad of spit hocked onto his t-shirt, which was then rubbed in by the stripper before she went through additional boob-and-crotch related moves to retrieve her twenty dollars. The second stage-flopper, however, got the deluxe treatment. To the audience’s delight and my horror, she crawled over to him, removed his belt, rolled him over onto his stomach, and yanked his pants down. She then – pardon me, I have to step back a moment, I’m suffering a bout of PTSD dredging up this memory – spat on his meaty ass, rubbed it in with her bare hand, and then proceeded to flog the wet spot with his coiled belt until he couldn’t take any more and started blocking the blows with his open palm.

He, too, paid twenty dollars for this privilege.

“There’s no amount of soap in the world that would ever make me feel clean again,” I confided to my less enthusiastic friend. I’d have shared this thought with my more enthusiastic friend as well, but he missed this disturbing spectacle. He was off in a booth somewhere, getting a private dance. What exact services or visuals he had selected from the long and confusing menu of options posted at various points on the wall remained mysterious. I didn’t ask.

Suffice to say, our plans to go and check the place out for an hour, and then retreat back to my screening room to watch a movie once we’d been thoroughly horrified, did not pan out. Instead we spent a few hours experiencing a spectrum of reactions that ranged from delight to disgust, and then called it a night far too late to begin a movie.

I don’t know if anything was really learned from this experience, but at least one mystery was solved. We now know why the eyesore that used to be Picasso is still standing, safe and sound from the wrecking ball. The property is still raking in far too much money to quit now, even as the above-ground portion of the building slowly collapses under the weight of time and neglect.

Sex sells, even when the economy is shit.

The twin businesses, fused together forever.

The twin businesses, fused together forever.

The Worst Thing on the Internet

Five years ago I was in Alaska to take in the sights. It was a nature vacation, full of mountains and glaciers and forests. And there was also plenty of majestic wildlife to behold. Killer whales and humpbacks, bald eagles and spawning salmon. There was even a random black bear taking a swim in a river.

Nothing, however, compared to the dolphins. I saw them on the return trip, as our ship sailed back down the coast between the endless series of islands that keep the Pacific at bay and maintain calm river-like waters for much of the run between Skagway and Vancouver. One morning they appeared at starboard, racing the bow as it cut through the sea, leaping out of the water every few seconds.

I ran down to our stateroom to grab a camera. Although I was destined to get no pictures of the airborne dolphins (their leaps being too quick, too fleeting), it was while I was in that cabin that I got treated to the best view I could hope for. I just happened to look out the window at precisely the right moment to see a dolphin fly out of the waves, just a few feet from the glass, and hang there, perfectly boxed in the panoramic frame as it matched the speed of the ship exactly. It was a beautiful, magic moment in my life. It was over in less than two seconds flat, and I’ll never forget it – even though that memory has now been ruined forever.

The internet can taint anything. Between tweeting and retweeting, Facebook sharing and your run-of-the-mill “Hey, check this out” emails, nothing wholesome and decent and beautiful is safe anymore. No longer will I associate dolphins with that split instant of precisely framed wonder in a northern coastal corner of British Columbia. When I think of dolphins, I’ll think of this.

Aquatic auto-erotic necrophilic inter-species exhibitionist bestiality aside, it’s his self-satisfied “O” face that really troubles me. Nobody needs to see this kind of moment of intimacy. Not from a dolphin, not from any species. What happens in the aquarium should stay in the aquarium, and I curse the smart-phone photographer for sharing this with the web. And then I curse everyone else on the web for sharing it – myself included. I can’t unsee this, and now, neither can you.

I hereby declare this video clip to officially be, now and in the foreseeable future, The Worst Thing on the Internet. And I know whereof I speak. I’ve see those two girls and their one cup and everything they put in it. I’ve seen those three guys and their one hammer reducing the number of guys by a factor of one. And, obviously, I’ve seen my fair share of Islamic-Fundamentalist execution videos. How could I not? They’re ubiquitous on the web. Like funny-cat videos. It’s getting so a coptic cab driver can’t even drive around with a crucifix hanging from his rearview mirror without inspiring an inpromptu flashmob of decapitation enthusiasts, each armed with their own knife and recording device.

I have to take a moment out, however, to provide some constructive criticism here. I know there are all sorts of middle-eastern countries in radical upheaval. The blood is running in the streets and camera technology is rolling in the hands. But Syria, a word if you will…

Syria, seriously, you have got to get some sort of whetstone to sharpen your knives. I’ve got shit to do. I can’t spend an extra five minutes on every decapitation video while you try to hack through some infidel’s spine with a rusty spoon. It’s all about pacing. And our attention spans in the west are very short, especially when we’re trying to be horrified. That’s why every Saw film had to open with a gruesome kill right off the bat. We don’t want to wait around for plot development while we’re jonesing for a cheap thrill. And we certainly can’t invest any more of our precious internet porn-surfing time watching you commit brutal murder. Not unless there’s a clever twist ending. Again, like a Saw film. Learn from them.

Let me play executive producer for a moment and give you and all the other assorted radicals some notes on your little iPhone snuff films. First of all, mix it up a bit. Does it always have to be a decapitation? They’re so predictable. Guy with knife goes for the neck, saw saw saw, cut cut cut, head comes off, show it to the delighted crowd of spectators. It’s 2013. Decapitations are soooo early twenty-first century. Time marches on, so up your game. Have you looked into disembowelings for example? Quicker in execution, slower in payoff, but they can be quite showy. Real crowd pleasers so long as the crowd stands upwind.

Second, do your research. And I don’t just mean you should improve your decapitation methodology (which, let’s face it, needs work). But crack open a history book if you haven’t already burned them all and read about the fun and games they got up to in the middle ages. I’m not saying you have to reinvent the anal pear (and you probably would have to reinvent it if you wanted one because I can’t remember the last time I saw an anal pear for sale at Walmart, and they usually have EVERYTHING). But back then, they knew how to throw a gruesome execution with only common household items. Remember, when in doubt, go pyre. It’s always a home run with the fans, and warm on those chilly desert nights.

Third, you need to upgrade your digital technology. I don’t care if you have the latest iPhone or iWhatever. That shit’s fine for selfies, but you’re shooting snuff. You need a wider aspect ratio. Invest in a real digital camera that’s actually designed to shoot home movies (and snuff). I know the iPhone is convenient and Apple seems to go hand-in-hand with crimes against humanity, but the end results speak for themselves. Someone is giving their life for your movie. Sure, they’re an infidel who lies with dogs for not acknowledging the one true god as you define him and is therefore beneath contempt. But show the teensiest bit of respect and at least shoot the murder well.

Which brings me to my final point, so I really need you to focus here, because I can’t stress this enough. You cannot hold a camera steady while you’re shouting Allahu Akbar at the top of your lungs in a religious fervour. Look, I get it. I appreciate your passion. It’s what makes you a cinéma vérité artiste. But let’s face it, God may be great and all, but he makes for a shitty tripod. The dude can perform miracles, but one miracle he can’t seem to do is turn your arm into a Steadicam while you’re in bloodlust mode. So skip the high-volume worship mantra during your money shot and shoot silent. If you really think the film is missing something after you screen a rough cut, you can always ADR it and loop your voice in with the chorus of other Allahu Akbars, okay? I know you don’t want to feel left out in the moment. The blood is pumping in your veins and spurting from the open arteries of your victim, and you want to participate. But respect your art. Get your shot list. Celebrate later.

Remember, I say this not as a film critic, but as a fan of cinema in general. The future of the mondo-gonzo genre of filmmaking lies in your blood and entrail-soaked hands. Do us proud.

My Scorched Earth Vacation

I still haven’t written about my Alaskan vacation two years ago like I promised. Now I can’t wait to not write about my Mediterranean trip as well. I didn’t say much to anybody beforehand about this epic voyage because blogging about a three-week absence is like saying, “Please, at your earliest convenience, drop by my empty home and rob the shit out of me.”

Although I’m likely to never get into the specifics of my day-to-day travels through twelve cities in four countries on three continents, recent events have prompted me to mention certain highlights. Mostly because disaster has dogged my heels at every turn. Timing in life is everything, and during the trip I managed to narrowly avoid all sorts of inclement weather. Rain, when it came, generally waited until I was indoors and then stopped in time for me to step back outside. But it was only after I was safely back home that the real cataclysms started to explode in my wake, including incapacitating snow, airport shutdowns, floods, embassy bombings, shark attacks, closed ports, violent seas, and all-out revolution.

You may have heard that Egypt is burning tonight. On some level, I fear it’s all my fault for having spent two days there. I’m sure thirty years of oppression has less to do with it than a nation-wide intolerance for yet another westerner violating the sanctity of their national monuments. By paying a fistful of Egyptian pounds to go crawling around deep inside one of the great pyramids like a latter day crusader, looking for something cool to loot from the gift shop, and contemplating lunch at the Pizza Hut that rests majestically in the shadow of the Sphinx, I may have triggered some ancient curse or other. I’m not sure which one, since there are so many curses involving mummies and scarabs and crazy drivers in Egypt, but I’m hoping a qualified Egyptologist might weigh in with a professional opinion — provided they’re not currently occupied torching government buildings and throwing teargas canisters back at riot police.

I hope this isn’t a trend. I feel like merely passing through places like England, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Egypt may have inadvertently caused all sorts of damage with my aura of cynical pessimism. But it’s not like any similar horrible disasters happened following my 2008 visit to Alaska.

Well…Sarah Palin. But that’s just… Aw shit, I’ve done it again, haven’t I?

Loot from the fourth crusade adorns St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Seeing the statue of the Tetrarchy from Constantinople was a big deal for me because I’m a history nerd. And you probably don’t give a shit because you’re not. Just take my word for it. It’s fucking cool.

My homoerotic fascination with phallic obelisks was satisfied in Rome, which sports thirteen of these ancient monuments. More than any other city in the world. I visited every single one. And you probably don’t give a shit because you’re still not a history nerd. Just take my word for it. It’s fucking obsessive and weird to do that, even for a history nerd.

Me versus the Mouth of Truth. Mostly because I wanted to stick my hand in the same hole as Gregory Peck. And I don’t mean Mrs. Peck. I told a lie while my hand was in there and wasn’t maimed as promised — so it didn’t work and I totally want my fifty Euro cents back!

The Milvian Bridge. Not much of a tourist attraction, even though the fate of Christian civilization was decided here after Constantine squared off against Maxentius in the year 312. The signs on the site make no mention of what happened, which is fucked up. I guess when your entire city is overflowing with history, it’s easy to overlook a few minor details here and there. Like an event that swung the entire course of world history.Yes, as a matter of fact, it does look like I’m standing in front of a tourist agency poster.

The Pyramid of Menkaure is the one I went spelunking in. It was cramped and hot and miserable and AWESOME. Saladin’s son, al-Malik al-Aziz Osman bin Salahadin Yusuf and his crew spent eight months back in the 12th century trying to destroy the pyramids, starting with Menkaure. After barely denting it, they gave up. Losers.I wasn’t kidding about the Pizza Hut (left).

While in Istanbul, I visited the set of Tom Tykwer’s film, The International. I guess they left the facade standing after production wrapped.

Me sitting on an ancient public toilet in Ephesus. Pretty funny. But had no one been around, I would have dropped my pants and made a straining face. Because that’s what’s known as INTELLECTUAL comedy.

All over the Mediterranean, stray dogs and cats live in the ruins. I have to admit, it makes ancient history a lot more adorable.

Shockingly, in Greece, they treat their ruins with roped-off reverence. Everywhere else they pretty much let you climb around on their ruins like they’re two-thousand-year-old jungle gyms. Because hey, they’re just a bunch of rocks, right?

Casts of the remains of Pompeii’s volcano victims ratchet up the creepiness factor of the tour to eleven.

Winners of the Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman lookalike contests shake hands in Naples and vow to co-star in a buddy cop film at some future date. Box office gold guaranteed.

2010 Now And For The Foreseeable Future

After three weeks overseas visiting twelve cities in four countries on three continents, it took me another three weeks to recover. When I go on holiday, I like to shoot for exhausting and hectic, rather than something trite like relaxing or refreshing. Now that I’ve got all the travel and tribulation behind me, I’m ready to take on things like Christmas and New Year’s. Which are still many days off, right? Right?

Oh yeah. And the blog. I should really write something for December. But that deadline is also many days off, right? Right?

Help me out here. I can’t do all the denial by myself.

Cold State, Hot Bod

Sure, it’s a politically groundbreaking year — history in the making. But how does that affect me?

Well mostly it just pisses me off.

About eight years ago, I was shopping around a feature screenplay that had some heat on it. It was a mystery/thriller about air crash investigators — sort of a CSI  for aviation nuts before the first of the three dozen CSI  shows ever even premiered. Several producers expressed interest and there was serious talk of slipping the project in through the back door at a major Hollywood studio.

But there was a little problem with the script. One of the major characters was a female President of the United States.

More than one of the potential producers expressed concern that this was flatly impossible, could never happen, and would make the film wildly implausible. And they asked if I could maybe think about demoting the character to First Lady, which might have been simple enough, except for the fact that it would have completely fucked up the whole story.

I was even asked, at one point, to invent an entire political career backstory to explain how a female President could even come to exist in this world I had envisioned. Clearly my crazy talk about a Commander in Chief with different plumbing and an extra X chromosome needed to be justified.

Now, less than a decade later, we have Hillary Clinton narrowly missing out as the Democratic Party candidate, and Sarah Palin making the Vice Presidential half of the ticket on the Republican side. You no longer have to draw a diagram to show how it’s possible for a woman to land the top job anymore.

Ultimately, in one of my rare displays of backbone when it comes to getting wrongheaded, damaging notes from producers, I told them no. I wasn’t going to change the script. At least not until somebody paid me to do it. I stuck to my guns.

A year and a half later there was a September incident that spoiled the public’s enthusiasm for airplane crashes and the screenplay got filed away in the back of my hard drive. I like to console myself that the project would have eventually died in development thanks to that event, but it’s hardly any comfort at all. Timing is half the battle in this industry, and being ahead of the curve can really screw you over.

The new cold war just got smokin hot

Could Sarah Palin become the first ever PILF?

(If you need me to explain the joke behind that variation on a popular acronym, you probably shouldn’t be reading this website anyway.)

Sarah Palin joining the McCain ticket today irritates me in another significant way. It really gums up the works of my vacation.

Did she really have to be the governor of Alaska? I’m going to be up there next week on a cruise, looking at whales and glaciers and mountains and shit. And my opportunity to relax and commune with nature is going straight to hell now that all those Alaskans are going to be bouncing off the walls with excitement over the November election and the local gal made good.

I really should have kept to my policy of staying away from the States — even pretend states like Hawaii and Alaska — until the Bush administration was safely over. Now I’m likely going to catch election fever all over again. As some of the most magnificent scenery off the Pacific coast drifts by, I’ll end up spending the entire trip in my stateroom watching the Republican national convention on TV, hoping and praying that Sarah Palin will have a wardrobe malfunction, or that CNN will accidentally capture an illicit upskirt shot of the VP candidate. Or, perhaps more likely, that the GOP, in an effort to secure more votes among the normally low-turnout demographic of men 18 to 30, will arrange a bikini wrestling match between Palin and Condoleezza Rice to hold their attention during McCain’s acceptance speech. Perhaps in mud, or maybe in one of several extensively vetted flavours of Jell-O.

You’ve come a long way, baby. Mostly thanks to progressive, visionary minds such as my own. No, really, it’s okay. You don’t need to thank me.

Provided my wife and I haven’t booked ourselves for a Titanic-esque experience that will end with us treading water in freezing cold water, listening to Celine Dion, suffering from bone-chilling hypothermia, and praying for the sweet embrace of death so we don’t have to listen to any more Celine Dion, I’ll be back in September with one, perhaps even two, brief and ill-conceived blog entries that will make you sorely regret expending all the time and energy it took to click on your RSS feed.

Things I Learned In 2007

Another year and what’s it all come to? Even a know-it-all like me has to admit that a full year of travels and experiences must still amount to some measure of enlightenment. Here are the few pearls of wisdom I managed to glean from 2007 by keeping my eyes and ears open.

1. I’m allergic to Ground Zero.

During my recent trip to New York, I started to experience a severe allergic reaction to something. My nose was in agony, with a tickle deep in my sinuses, and my right eye was leaking like a tap. These symptoms dogged me for the better part of a day before finally fading in the evening. What had I done to bring this on? Well, I’d eaten a salmon omelet, driven in a New York cab, watched Fox News, visited Ground Zero, had a bag of vendor peanuts…

Wait, back up.

Watched Fox News. Hmmm.

No, forward a bit.

Visited Ground Zero.

Damn near everything I was interested in seeing was shut down thanks to various entertainment industry strikes. But at least one stage show was still packing in the crowds. The circus that is Ground Zero remains a vibrant tourist trap, filled with rich opportunities to gawk, grieve and buy tacky twin-towers souvenirs.

Or you could just try to sell your conspiracy-theory manifesto like this guy, who didn’t particularly care for me snapping his photo — obviously at the behest of a Black Ops death squad that has been monitoring his thoughts via satellite technology obtained from a crashed alien spacecraft in Area 52.

I considered my allergies might have been a reaction to the general filth of New York City, but the symptoms returned the next day when I traveled to the south end of town again. I really think it was Ground Zero. The ongoing construction continues to stir up who-knows-what toxic crap that still remains in the area. Conspiracy theorists are free to speculate what exactly that toxic crap may be. Personally, I expect it’s something rather mundane and boring. Like asbestos.

2. It takes a German.

Body Worlds 2 enjoyed sell-out crowds in Montreal this summer. This was the second in a series of shows that travel the world displaying human bodies prepared by plastination. Yes, we’re talking real dead people, skinned, preserved, and posed under glass to illustrate the wonders of our insides. The Body Worlds exhibits have been going on for years, but remain controversial because of their uncomfortable mix of science and art. Seeing what people’s muscles and organs look like as they perform common activities has value as a teaching tool. But some of the bodies — like the one that had been effectively turned into a chest of drawers, with different compartments left ajar in an oddly aesthetic cubist manner — seem to be the hapless victims of Hollywood’s next franchised serial killer. The creator of the show, Gunther von Hagens, makes sure everybody knows that all the bodies were obtained through detailed consent forms. If you have any doubt, you can grab one of the consent forms yourself. They’re readily available to anyone interested, and I couldn’t help but wonder who there was already eyeing my carcass for a future display. I don’t think I could qualify as the next “Basketball Player” or “Swimmer” body, but if they’re planning a “Television Watcher” display, I’m their corpse.

3. Fuck the Smithsonian.

A weekend trip to Knowlton in the Eastern Townships of Quebec brought me to a little rural museum run by the Brome County Historical Society. As we were driving into town, it was casually mentioned to me that the museum housed an actual World War I fighter plane that had been sitting inside since 1920. Being a bit goofy for WWI aviation history, I had to check it out. Sure enough, they have their very own Fokker D VII, the last of its kind in the world still with its original canvas skin. It was one of a few brought back to Ottawa as war trophies following Germany’s defeat. When the Brome County Historical Society wrote to the government asking for something — anything — from the war to put in their museum, they received a bunch of packages with an entire disassembled airplane. It took them a couple of years to construct a building to house it. Once it was done, they put the Fokker back together inside and its been sitting there ever since, perfectly preserved. Several years ago, a goon squad from the Smithsonian Institute dropped by to visit the museum’s prized possession. They were horrified to see it was in a wooden building with inadequate fire protection. They expressed their great interest in procuring the D VII for their own rather-more-famous museum. The Brome County Historical Society told them, in their polite Canadian way, to get bent. And they were absolutely right to do so. Sure, maybe this priceless war relic will burn to the ground one day when some smoker gets careless with a butt. But the Smithsonian has enough shit already, so fuck ’em.

4. Not everybody in Canada is an atheist yet.

I hadn’t been to Halifax in years — not since I took a sixteen-hour bus trip to visit friends in university and shared a single bed with a close friend for one uncomfortably close night. My travel experience this time around was rather more relaxed because I was flying there, staying in a beautiful oceanside house, and sharing a double bed with my wife. You’d be surprised how these little luxuries can improve the whole experience. When I wasn’t eating tremendous amounts of sea food, I was taking in the sites. Being mostly outside the city this time around, it struck me how much the locals wear their religion on their sleeve. I expect bible quotations on convenience store signs when I’m in Texas, but not so much when I’m anywhere in Canada. Maybe it’s because I’m from Quebec, a province that used to be run by the Catholic church until everyone collectively decided they’d had enough of that shit and abandoned religion in such numbers that there’s nothing left to do but turn all the churches and convents into condos. Faith remains alive and well in the maritimes it seems. I expect it has a lot to do with the fishing industry. The sea has a habit of eating sailors mercilessly and completely at random. I saw enough graveyards scattered throughout the area to remind me of this. I guess if your job is that dangerous, you’d better believe in something bigger than a retirement fund.

5. The Chinese are even smarter than I thought.

Why invade when you can just send your enemy lead-painted toys? America thinks they’re winning the cultural cold war with China by turning them into capitalists. But China is simply using the free market to further weaken the United States and turn it into a nation of retards by feeding its children a steady diet of brain-damaging heavy metals. The American feast of lead paint explains much about where they find themselves today — up to and including the Bush presidency. One more generation of this and they’ll be so stupid they’ll lose the ability to press the right combination of buttons to launch their vast nuclear arsenal. And by then, the landing crafts will be at their shores. Americans will be reduced to throwing their own poo at the invading red army, and they’ll go down in history as the first empire to fall through idiocy alone.

6. I don’t attend to my blog enough.

But you knew that already.

As the final hours of 2007 tick away, enjoy some more random snapshots from my digital photo album.

I had to go visit Peggy’s Cove again. Last time I was there it was a gale and all I saw was inky blackness and rain hitting my face.

Nova Scotia has no end of quaint fishing villages trying to unload all those damn lobsters.

What Nova Scotia vista would be complete without a washed-up lobster trap?

I have a fetish for aircraft of the Great War. I’d just never go up in one of those death traps.

I also have a fetish for the Chrysler Building — home of Q, the winged serpent.

This does absolutely nothing to stop insane New York drivers from honking constantly.

Ok New York, you win. You have the creepiest mannequins.

Does your city have a 3600-year-old obelisk? No? Then I guess your city just sucks.

Sometimes I take pictures because I think they’ll make a pretty desktop background.

The hippest hole in the ground in the world. Come visit before they fill it all in with buildings and parks and crap.

This tent-like structure just adds to the circus atmosphere.

But then again, the whole city is a big circus freakshow.

If you bought this bridge on eBay, please be advised the City of New York will not honour your purchase. I found this out the hard way and now my PayPal account is down fifty bucks.

That’s A Wrap

2006 has mere hours left to live. You may have noticed I’ve been rushing these last few days to post all the news, updates, and dangling loose ends before the new year begins. We all like a fresh start from time to time, and I wanted to put any old business to rest so I wouldn’t have to think about it in 2007.

I’ve already written the final word on Paddywhacking. But in the interest of being utterly complete, I’ll sign off the year with a collection of leftover images from the project and my time in Dublin that never found a home in any previous blog entry.

All the trendier restaurants name themselves after deceased dictators. Can a Saddam’s be far off?

Some of the Paddywhacking gang and associates do what they do best. Drink wine.

I don’t want to know what he’s thinking about doing with that thumb.

My Irish nemesis. The most powerful hotel shower in the world. I still have bruises.

The Stag’s Head. I guess if your pub is old enough, you get to advertise on the pavement.

Pst. It’s this way.

It’s always interesting to drink in a pub that’s a century or two older than my home country.

Anna Merritt and I play dueling digital photography inside The Stag’s Head.

Dublin buildings are just cool looking.

Anna inside the homey Subotica offices. They’re set up in Neil Jordan‘s old flat.

Insomnia coffee and a peat fire announce it’s time to get to work.

We filled all too many white boards with this sort of story-structure gobbledygook.

The touristy shops started about ten feet away from the hotel.

A view of The Fitzwilliam hotel from St. Stephen’s Green. Whenever I’m in Dublin (and someone else is paying), I stay at the Fitz.

St. Stephen’s Green is full of trees that are very old.

And gnarled.

And textured.

See you in the new year.


The last time I went to Ireland to work on Paddywhacking, I said I wouldn’t write another blow-by-blow, day-by-day description of what went down. But I did say that I would offer up at least one interesting story about my travels. This one is overdue.

Darndale is the name of a district at the north end of Dublin. Had the series of low-rent apartments that compose much of the layout of the place been built in North America, someone would have dubbed them “the projects.” Over the course of several drafts, the setting of half of our television miniseries had been relocated from an Irish border town to the general Dublin area and Darndale specifically. In an effort to bring everyone (particularly the Canadian faction of the team) up to speed on what the Darndale experience was all about, a nighttime infiltration was planned. “Safari” would also be an appropriate term.

Co-writing the miniseries with me was Declan Croghan, London-based but Dublin-born. He arranged for us to be picked up by a trustworthy guide — one of his brothers as it turned out. The brother arrived in a four-wheel drive that looked like something the military might issue. It may have seemed a touch extreme for a simple city tour, but as we made the long dark trek north to the increasingly shitty end of town, a full-blown tank started to seem like a more desirable tour bus.

I’m sure it’s at least three hundred percent more charming by the light of day, but by night Darndale seemed like a vaguely apocalyptic urban jungle. A good place to get murdered if you dared look like you didn’t belong. The design of all the low-rent housing in the neighbourhood increased the overall peril of the place. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, laid out on some architect’s blueprints, but in practice it was sheer folly. None of the apartment complexes had doors leading out to the street. Instead, the entrances all pointed inward to courtyards that were only accessible by foot. The blocks themselves were arranged in a jigsaw-puzzle pattern that was meant to be quaint, but served as an impenetrable maze of zigzagging streets. The end result was an entire district the police were too frightened to enter. If the architects of Darndale had set out to design a tiger trap for squad cars, they couldn’t have done better. Chasing suspects into this morass was a fool’s errand at best, and a life-endangering ambush at worst. To catch anyone in Darndale, officers would have to leave the safety of their cars for an inevitable foot chase through enclosed courtyards and dark corners. That is, if their cars ever even made it to the scene. We were told of the destruction of many police vehicles that had dared penetrate the neighbourhood. A few twists and turns through unfamiliar streets and they’d wind up on some dead end, pelted to pieces by the local juvenile offenders who blocked them in and stoned their cars to death with rocks and chunks of concrete. Officers were forced to abandon their rides and run for their lives, hoping to find some route out by foot.

Turning down one street enclosed by tall towers, we were reminded how much our own ride resembled a police vehicle. As our headlights lit up the pitch black nooks and alleyways of the twisting street, startled junkies fled in all directions. Only moments after we realized what a strung-out hornets nest we’d disturbed, the hornets themselves realized we weren’t any sort of authority they needed to worry about. They immediately started to reclaim their shooting gallery, closing in all around us in a loose meandering formation that had the distinct possibility of turning ugly and/or hostile. Taking no chances, Declan’s brother put the four-wheel drive to good use, gunning the car over the curb for a surprise bit of off-roading that narrowly squeezed us through a cement pillar divider between buildings and back onto the street a block over, safely out of junkie range.

Where people in Darndale bought the necessities of life (other than heroin) was not readily apparent. All the shops we saw were in ruins, like they’d be targeted by a bombing campaign meant to reduce them to rubble so the homeless would have someplace to squat. The only commercial outlet of any kind I saw was operated out the back of a large steel cargo container. I got close enough to take a picture, but not close enough to determine what was for sale. The rest of the party urged me to get back in the car quickly. Stopping was, evidently, a poor idea. And snapping photos was a quick way to get my arse kicked, most likely by the mysterious, unseen shop keeper himself.

Would you buy milk and eggs from this man?

Locally, transportation was in short supply. Owning any car nicer than a complete shitbox seemed pointless. If it wasn’t stolen outright, it was bound to be reduced to shitbox status overnight. As a result, delinquent children were left with slim joyride pickings. Ever inventive, however, they’d come up with a solution to that.


Now, keep in mind, this was strictly an urban landscape. Any sort of countryside or farming was miles and miles away. The only green space at all was small patches of lawn around the apartment buildings. Everything else was paved. Nevertheless, horses roamed the neighbourhood freely, grazing where they could, and blocking whatever motorized transportation might happen along. These weren’t the elegant, muscular beasts of the field or racetrack you likely think of when the word “horse” comes up in conversation. These were shaggy, unkempt, wildebeest-looking animals –- the horse equivalent of a filthy homeless schizophrenic living in a cardboard box next to a dumpster. We were told that the local kids would buy cheap horses on auction for a few Euros they cobbled together, and then joyride them bareback around town. By the time the sun went down, they would grow weary of their bare-hoofed toys and would leave them to wander around for days or weeks until animal control picked them up and carted them off. The horses would be fed and tended to and then put up for auction, where the same kids would buy them all over again for another round of joyriding.

Free horse. Help yourself.

Grooming, shoes, and hay could go a long way.

Strictly for research purposes, we went on a pub crawl. Not the kind of pub crawl you go on when you want to get drunk. We needed to keep our wits about us. In fact, the first pub we were shown was deemed too dangerous to even enter.

“Oh, they put windows in,” Declan and his brother marveled when they saw the place for the first time in years. The toughest pub in Darndale used to be a concrete bunker with only one way in or out. Fights would start up inside, and woe be to anyone who didn’t want to participate. There was no escape except to be bludgeoned to unconsciousness quickly. If you were lucky, you wouldn’t be trampled to death in the ensuing melee. Times had changed, however, and now there were plenty of windows cut along the side to allow for all sorts of defenestration action whenever one mate refused to take back what he said about another mate’s mother.

New windows, same broken teeth.

Pub number two was rather more interesting. Declan’s brother had called ahead a couple of hours earlier for special permission to enter and bring some film industry friends who were sightseeing. It wasn’t that this was an exclusive club with an annual fee and a members-only jacket. By all indications, it was open to the public at large. But if you dared cross its threshold and they didn’t know who you were, you were in for a very unwelcome time indeed. This was a Sinn Fein pub, and its location alone insured there weren’t going to be any casual walk-ins from the street. Tucked behind a cemetery, a quarter mile down a long, deserted, tombstone-lined road, you had to make a serious commitment to even get there. And if they didn’t like the look of you once you got there, well…there was all sorts of real estate right next door that wouldn’t mind an extra body or two.

Inside we were greeted by our contact, the man who was going out on a limb to vouch for us. And he was the largest, scariest man I’ve ever seen in my life. He had a face that looked like it had stopped innumerable bare-knuckled punches without blinking. He had a belly on him that could have been employed to crush all the air out of you if he simply turned too quickly. And he had hands that were like shaking a pair of boxing gloves when he offered them to you in a friendly gesture that sent a paralytic chill down your spine. Put simply, he looked like he could and would pull your head off with his bare hands and peel it like a grape — just so he could drink a flagon of mead out of your skull.

Thankfully, we had brought Kryptonite with us. As menacing as he was, this goliath, obese, head-cracking, superman was like a mewling kitten in the face of our tour group. That’s because we had women with us. His one weakness. Around the female of the species (assuming he was, indeed, human) he was shy and awkward. It proves, I suppose, that no matter how much ass you kick, some of us are forever trapped in public school mode when it comes to mating rituals.

They say the only real Guinness is Dublin-brewed Guinness. Something to do with the local water, supposedly. Beer connoisseurs look down on the North American stuff as an inferior imitation. The joke is that you need genuine River Liffey water to brew a proper Guinness. At least I hope it’s a joke. I’ve seen the Liffey. Drinking it would be suicide. In fact, on my last day in Dublin, they pulled a body out of the Liffey. If drowning in the water hadn’t killed her, swallowing some of it would have done the deed just as quick. Personally, I can’t say I’ve noticed a hell of a lot of difference between Guinness on tap here and on tap over there. But for some reason, the Guinness at this Sinn Fein pub was superior to all. I thought it was just me, but I compared notes with the group later and the verdict was the same. I suspect an I.R.A. conspiracy that kept the good stuff for themselves and their own, and let the rest of Ireland drink the discards. I’d prove it to you if I could, but even if I could find this pub again, the welcome mat was only out for that brief moment of time in the winter of 2005.

The third and final pub on the tour was safely on the outskirts of Darndale, in a well-lit, welcoming place where regular civilians could drink and not be murdered for their shoes. There, Declan ran into one of this old associates he hadn’t seen in years. Declan is one of those guys who gets recognized wherever he goes in his old stomping grounds, even by people who haven’t seen him since he was a kid. He’s the quintessential Irishman. Not the Luck Charms variety of Irishman, but the manly Irish Spring variety. He looks like Lee Marvin and James Coburn had a love child, complete with the big picket-fence teeth and prematurely white hair. And, like all Irishmen in classic literature, he has a long history of death and rebirth, managing to get fucked up enough to have been read the last rites two or three times in his life. He’s a force of nature, indestructible.

But it’s still possible to take the piss out of him. Witness the aforementioned lost associate with the unique talent of finding where people’s buttons are and pushing them, just to see how irritating he can be without getting punched. Watching him go to work on Declan and seeing Declan’s resulting foul mood was highly entertaining. An interesting, consistently drunken character, this old pal had spent a long stretch in prison. There he learned a few new special skills. Like, for instance, how to have sex with other men. Now, paroled and free to come and go as he pleases, he maintains his acquired taste for the allure of man-ass. I know this because he took Declan aside to bug him to return the next day without his entourage. He wanted to meet up again, just him, Declan, and myself. It seems he took quite a fancy to my boyish charms and thought romance might be in the air. I can’t help but wonder what might have happened had he not just spent the last half hour tweaking Declan’s bollocks for a laugh. Declan might well have tossed me to him for old time’s sake. You never know. One minute you’re on a research trip, the next you’re in the public toilets trying to convince a hardened (and hard) ex-con and his shiv that you’re quite flattered by all the attention, but you really don’t swing that way. Thanks just the same.

Declan left, his brother right, my not-so-secret admirer centre. Wet pants courtesy my spilled Guinness.

The ride home was a thoughtful one. I’d seen a lot, and already the wheels were turning, deciding how some of this local colour could be worked into the scripts. The shaggy mongrel horses had to make a cameo, as did the police cruiser ambush technique and the pub behind the cemetery. So much of this material was gold for our project, it would breathe new life into the next draft. There was plenty of fresh hope and enthusiasm for our little four-hour tale of Irish mobsters in Montreal and Dublin, and all the intrigue and drama and violence and pitch black humour that was to go with it. The future seemed very bright.

Oh, how things change.

The Circles I Walk In

It was a busy week for celebrity mishaps and mayhem. Britney Spears and George Bush both decided to unload their wiggers at practically the same moment. Jack Palance, villain of the movie I’m named after, died. Probably while performing one-armed push-ups. And Denise Richards nearly got busted for chucking a pair of paparazzi laptops off a third floor balcony and hitting two little old ladies.

As I watched the moment-by-moment coverage of the Denise Richards laptop assault scandal, something felt eerily similar. That place. I knew that place. It was the River Rock casino resort where I’d just attended and lost the Shatner awards!

Hey, I said to myself, flush with that orgasmic feeling of celebrity proximity, I was on that exact balcony. Only when I was standing in that spot, I was throwing two little old ladies off it onto a couple of laptop computers. I can’t say for sure if they were owned by paparazzi, but that would be crazy symmetry.

Usually I like to visit the scene of a notorious crime and picture the violence that happened there before someone came to clean up the mess and make it look all normal again. This is the first time I’ve been to a tawdry crime scene shortly before anything cool occurred.

Disaster has followed in my wake. And by disaster, I don’t just mean the ugly flying-technology scene with paparazzi sleaze merchants. I mean the entirety of Denise Richard’s and Pamela Anderson’s careers. Those two shooting a movie together in Vancouver may well be the cinematic equivalent of teaming up matter and anti-matter in a family-friendly buddy cop picture. Explosive! And not in the happy box office sort of way.